A week ago I was trying to keep cool in the heat and humidity of Bougainville. Ever since then, back in Wellington, I have been trying to keep warm. It's hard to believe sometimes that the two places are on the same planet.
Apart from the heat, my first impressions of Bougainville and in particular Arawa were of paradise lost. Interspersed with the lush tropical rain forest are mangled rusting girders and sheds - reminders of the Islands recent war torn past and the civil war 'crisis'. Into this back drop has been inserted a beacon of hope, a new library building donated by the people of New Zealand and in particular Wellington's Bougainville Library Trust.
I was fortunate enough to be asked by the Trust to design a new library building for the island which would house and display 15000 books (entirely donated by New Zealanders and New Zealand institutions) while providing a variety of spaces where the books could be read in comfort, community events could be held and cultural performances could occur. All within a very tight budget of course.
The electricity supply in Arawa is at best unreliable so an air conditioned building was out of the question. Instead the principles of shade, ventilation and orientation had to be applied vigorously to achieve the desired environment. There are no 'windows' in the building. Everything from the floor right up to the roof is gapped and slatted to allow as much air movement as possible. The roof is the predominant element with wide overhanging eaves, reflective surface and plywood (from New Zealand) beneath to prevent heat radiating through to the underside. Orientation is critical to achieve as much shade as possible from the high overhead sun and encourage the only reliable breeze flowing from the nearby sea towards the high inland mountains to cool the spaces.
All the timber for the construction was sourced from local supplies and is predominantly 'Vitex' a strong durable hardwood ideal for this situation. The construction was undertaken by the local carpentry school set up and supervised by Barry Binding a Wellington builder working for VSA in Arawa. The building took about 2 years to complete.
One of the highlights of the building for me is the use of 'sac sac' screens on the exterior walls. These are woven from bamboo into various repetitive patterns and reflect local places and stories. They lend a wonderful richness and interest to the outside of the building. It would be interesting to see similar use of local materials and patterns here in New Zealand
At the opening I was struck by the number of local people who came up to me and commented about how much they liked the building. Their over-arching sentiment was that it was both a modern building and a local building. “The best building in Bougainville.”
For me as an architect it is a rare and special moment when you realise that a building you have designed has the potential to better the lives of a whole community. I can only hope that the people of Bougainville will benefit from the gift of knowledge provided by its contents.